An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Thursday, December 31, 2009

List 'em up, 2009.

OK, I'll do one'a these this year. Why not? (I attempted a best-of-decade list, but it was daunting and kind of a drag, and I'm sick of seeing those anyway. So here's this.)

There's the usual caveat that I haven't been able to see everything yet, blah blah blah, but I doubt that, like, The White Ribbon is going to crack the list anyway, so I'm ready to pull the trigger. My 25 favorite films of 2009, counting down, starting with the also-rans.

Honorable mentions: Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces suffers from a serious case of Third Act Problems, but for most of the way it offers further proof that nobody in world cinema tells a story as enticingly as Pedro; Lone Scherfig's An Education is also hobbled by a botched ending, but it's got some of the year's loveliest performances, and its take on the myopia of young romanticism is moving and subtle; Ti West's The House of the Devil is almost the Gerry of horror movies, with its rhythmically slow build and masterful mise-en-scéne; Cary Fukunaga's Sin Nombre, a harrowing immigrant drama by an exciting new voice in Mexican cinema, features some of the year's most gorgeous widescreen lensing; and Armando Iannucci's In the Loop can't sustain its early reels' headlong rush of verbal brilliance, but as a caustic satire it's probably the closest we'll ever get to a Dr. Strangelove for the Bush era.

Dishonorable mention: Is it possible to believe that Lars von Trier's Antichrist is great art that's also completely full of shit? Von Trier's artistry is undeniable, and the performances are incredibly brave and committed, but the laziness and faux-profundity of the script is hard to overlook. "There's no such constellation," indeed.

THE LIST PROPER:

25) Crank: High Voltage. Like Michael Bay as filtered through old Warner Bros. cartoons and the French New Wave. Jason Statham is an axiom of ownage.

24) Harmony and Me. Hilarious collection of deadpan comic vignettes; also a surprisingly moving picaresque about the redemption of a sad-sack slacker and the therapeutic power of art.

23) A Single Man. Beautiful companion piece to Mad Men, for more than just the 1962 setting: it's almost a feature-length exegesis on Don Draper's exhortation to "limit your exposure."

22) Collapse. An intimate conversation with one of those street-corner nuts ranting about the end of the world—except he may not be a nut this time, and the end of the world might be real.

21) Whip It. No, I'm not kidding: Drew Barrymore's roller derby movie is a bright, heartfelt, irresistibly energetic tale of teen girl self-actualization—the cinematic equivalent of a great young-adult novel.

20) The Hurt Locker. I don't love this as much as everyone else does, but who am I to say no to a blisteringly single-minded character study of men in war that also blows stuff up real good? Best shot of a supermarket in cinema history.

19) Drag Me to Hell. In a welcome return to his roots, Sam Raimi finds the perfect sweet spot where horror and comedy intersect. Contains the most outlandishly conceived, outrageously executed set pieces of the year.

18) Public Enemies. Gotta love a rough-edged art film disguised as a blockbuster. Michael Mann's half-ugly, half-stunning digital video scrubs away all residue of nostalgia associated with the '30s gangster genre.

17) Adventureland. I didn't think the world needed another coming-of-age story about sensitive outsiders sharing a summer, but Greg Mottola's authentic script and graceful direction convinced me otherwise.

16) Pontypool. Locked-room suspense gives way to the year's strangest narrative tangent, which I daren't spoil even here. Grizzled old Stephen McHattie is both dryly ironic and almost romantically sonorous.

15) Tetro. Are we still allowed to use the word "classical" in 2009? Francis Ford Coppola, the returning champ, doesn't care about anything other than the images and emotions swirling around his old-fashioned brainpan.

14) Somers Town. My fave British filmmaker Shane Meadows masterfully locks into the languorous rhythms of two lost youths aimlessly wandering around London. A lyrical, magic-tinged wonderment; 70 minutes of pure happiness.

13) The Girlfriend Experience. Steven Soderbergh's digital follow-up to Bubble is just as uncompromising and aesthetically thrilling. His jazzy, circuitous, experimental editing upstages even Sasha Grey.

12) Big Fan. Robert Siegel gets how fandom tempers alienation; this absorbing character study presents a scenario in which the fandom is compromised and the fan must reckon with the confusion that remains.

11) The Brothers Bloom. Clever writing, exuberant filmmaking, perfect performances—how was Rian Johnson's second film dismissed as a mere Wes Anderson knockoff? For shame, critics.

10) Sita Sings the Blues. Buoyant meditation on music, mythology and heartbreak. Stylistically and thematically, Nina Paley's labor of love beats all the lame, overrated animation offered by the big studios this year.

9) A Serious Man. In which the Coen brothers go rooting around for the meaning of life in their own childhood backyard. A seriocomic reversal of the old saw, "somebody up there likes me."

8) The Box. All the sweet, sweet crazy we've come to expect from Richard Kelly, made with just enough discipline and adherence to traditional horror methods. Kelly is in communication with those who control the lightning.

7) Moon. Like a great episode of The Twilight Zone writ large: a minimalist genre work that remembers when sci-fi was about ideas, not spectacle. Also a master class in resourceful use of a low budget.

6) Me and Orson Welles. Maybe it's just the erstwhile theater-dork in me, but this sparkling love letter to the stage pleased me all out of proportion to its lack of buzz. Kinda like Almost Famous, weirdly, but better.

5) Silent Light. An immersive movie experience if there ever was one. Love, sorrow and the sanctity of daily rituals painted in stunning widescreen tableaux. Proves that "art films" needn't be remote or inaccessible.

4) Two Lovers. Start appreciating James Gray. No straining for Oscar approbation—just a beautiful, finely detailed, character-based drama that recalls U.S. cinema's '70s Silver Age. Guess they do make 'em like this anymore.

3) The Informant!. Zany farce, twisty tale of corporate corruption, close-up character study of the world's funniest sociopath—Soderbergh went two for two in '09 with this carnivalesque psychocomedy. Best voice-over EVER.

2) Humpday. My favorite movie to emerge from the DIY/mumblecore school. Lynn Shelton uses humor to suss out subtle truths about human relationships, and shapes her lead actors' improv with unprecedented precision.

1) Inglourious Basterds. An apotheosis of Tarantino's penchant for measured pacing and rigorous structure. Every shot and every scene is mapped out with beautiful exactitude. In a time when quick-cut incoherence rules the market—when "the shot has been banished from mainstream commercial cinema"—we need QT now more than ever. Plus, it's the best script the man has yet written: "If this is it, old boy, you won't mind if I go out speaking the King's?"

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